July 27 – I’m Not Lion

Today’s factismal: Poachers killed Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe last week.

If there is one thing that just about everyone can agree on, it is that poaching is bad. And not just “parking in a handicapped space” bad but “more evil than Linda Blair in the Exorcist” bad. That’s because poaching has many bad results and no good ones. What bad results?

Like Cecil, this lion lives in a game preserve. But he could still be poached. (My camera)

Like Cecil, this lion lives in a game preserve. But he could still be poached.
(My camera)

Poaching kills. A lot. To put it mildly, poaching is a huge problem. It kills off animals and, worse, focuses on species that are already on the brink of extinction. Take lions for example; in the past two decades, some 17,000 lions have been killed by poachers, including “Cecil” a highly popular lion at one of Zimbabwe’s nature parks. Similarly, since 1960, 96% of the rhinoceroses in Africa have been killed. Over a twenty year period, ivory poachers killed more than 60% of the elephants in Africa; in 2012, the toll was more than 25,000 African elephants killed for their tusks. More than 65,000 wild parrots are poached each year in Mexico for sale as pets; 49,000 of them will die before reaching pet stores. All told, more than 100 million animals are killed each year by poachers.

This rhino's horn makes him a popular target for poachers. (My camera)

This rhino’s horn makes him a popular target for poachers.
(My camera)

Poaching kills more than you think. Lion poaching does more than just kill lions and bird poaching does more than just kill birds. That’s because the animals and plants that are poached are part of an ecosystem and have a role to play. Those lions help keep the number of herbivores in check; without the lions, the herbivores can overpopulate an area and graze it to death. Those birds eat fruit from trees and drop the seeds in all sorts of new and interesting places, leading to a change in the forest that crowds out some trees and reduces the number of habitats and the number of animals that can live there.

This elephant does more than trumpet. They clear open spaces in forests where new things can grow and spread seeds in their dung. (My camera)

This elephant does more than trumpet. They clear open spaces in forests where new things can grow and spread seeds in their dung.
(My camera)

Poaching is dirty. Poachers kill most animals for just one thing. They kill elephants for their ivory tusks, and leave everything else behind to rot. They kill rhinos for their sharp horn and leave everything else behind to rot. They kill birds for their bright feathers and leave everything else behind to rot. (Do you see a pattern here?) And all of that rotting meat is a breeding ground for disease and decay that can spread from the poached animal’s carcass to animals that might feed on it, such as hyenas, lions, and buzzards. And then there is the problem of zoonotic diseases (medico-speak for “animals diseases caught by humans”). Remember Ebola? Poachers have caused several different outbreaks, thanks to the bushmeat trade. How about SARS? We can thank poachers feasting on masked palm civets and other critters for the 2002 outbreak. Anyone for HIV? That started as the simian foamy virus and was transmitted to humans through, you guessed it, poaching.

This flock of parrots would be in deep trouble in some parts of the world. (My camera)

This flock of parrots would be in deep trouble in some parts of the world.
(My camera)

Poaching makes the poor poorer. A tried-and-true route to economic success in many countries is ecotourism. In many areas, poor people must live by poaching; they simply don’t have enough resources to live on. But by changing an area into a protected zone with tourists who come to see the wildlife, the poor folks suddenly become less poor. The tourists spend money to stay, and money to eat local foods, and money for guides, and money on souvenirs; lots and lots of money, flowing from the hands of tourists into the hands of locals. Officials in Zimbabwe estimate taht Cecil the lion brought in over a million dollars in tourist money each year. Everybody wins. But poachers destroy that by stealing the wildlife that ecotourism needs. As a result, the poor get poorer as the tourists go elsewhere.

If you’d like to fight poaching and help scientists learn more about animals in the wild, why not join Snapshot Serengeti? You’ll get to look at cool photos of animals (and empty plains). And by identifying the animals you’ll help the folks managing them make sure that the populations stay safe and stable. To learn more, track on over to:

July 26 – Lemur Buy You A Drink!

It is hard to decide what is most amazing about lemurs. Is it the fact that they are one of the few simians that can make their own vitamin C? Is it that they have specialized teeth and claws for grooming (a toothcomb and a grooming claw, respectively)? Is it that they have a tapetum like a cat’s, allowing them to see in low light? Is it that they have “wet noses” that allow them to smell odors too faint for a bloodhound? Or is it that some species spend almost their entire lives in trees, coming down just to mate and move to new trees?

Look! UP in the tree! Its a bird! Its a plane! No - it is a lemur, man! (My camera)

Look! Up in the tree! Its a bird! Its a plane! No – it is a lemur, man!
(My camera)

A close up of that lemur. It isn't a spy' the radio pack on its back is being used to track its movements. (My camera)

A close up of that lemur. It isn’t a spy’ the radio pack on its back is being used to track its movements.
(My camera)

Of course, on the the most amazing things about lemurs is how much we still don’t know about them. We are still learning how often they change trees and what they eat and where they go on their days off. We’re using radio transmitters and citizen scientists and a host of other techniques to help these magnificent mammals survive.

July 24 – Twin Paradox

Today’s Factismal: The Kepler Satellite has discovered a near-twin of planet Earth, a mere 1,400 light years away!

There is good news out of NASA.  Kepler has found a planet that is a near-twin of Earth. It is called Kepler 452b; Kepler for the satellite that found it, 452 because it was the 452nd star checked, and b because it was the second planet found around that star. Given that Kepler has discovered more than 1,000 planets around other stars (and has evidence for another 3,000), perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve finally found one that is only half again as large as Earth and circling a start much like our Sun. What might amaze us is how high the odds for an Earth-like planet are. At one in a thousand, that means that there could be 40 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone!

Of course, it might take a while to visit these planets. At 1,400 light years away, it would make the ultimate road trip. If we were to zip by as quickly as the New Horizons probe (fastest in the Solar System!), it would only take us 28 million years or so to get to Kepler 452b. (Are we there yet?) And once we got there, we might find things a bit disappointing. The planet orbits its star just a little further our than Earth orbits our Sun, so its year is longer at 385 days. (And only 225 shopping days until Grunchmark!) The planet is half again as big as the Earth; if it has the same density as the Earth, then the gravity would be 63% higher than ours. So a 150 person would feel as if there were another 94 lb person on her back. And the star it orbits is about a billion years older and 20% larger than ours, which means that it puts out nearly 10% more energy. So if Kepler 452b has an Earth-like atmosphere, then it could be much warmer than Earth thanks to greenhouse feedbacks. But if the atmosphere of Kepler 452b is much different than ours (e.g., no water or no CO2), then the planet could be much colder; we simply don’t know for sure at this point. And that means that visiting Kepler 452b could be like wearing a teenager on your back during a hot sticky summer (hello, Wallyworld!) or it could be like carrying a backpack of provisions while hustling through an arctic wilderness (hello, ton-ton!). We need to do mor eresearch before we can know for sure.

The locations of Kepler's discoveries as seen against the night sky

The locations of Kepler’s discoveries as seen against the night sky

Kepler's discoveries (exploded view)

Kepler’s discoveries (exploded view)

One thing we do know for sure is how Kepler works. Kepler stares at stars and looks for the dimming caused by the transit of a planet across its face. To put the problem into scope, it is like trying to tell when a bird is flying across the sky by looking for its shadow from space. It can be done, but it takes a lot of work, a really good telescope, and pinpoint concentration on a specific area.

So what has Kepler discovered during its time in space? For one thing, Kepler has discovered that planets are a lot more common than anyone other than a planetologist thought. We’ve seen planets around old, cold stars and planets around young, hot stars. We’ve seen planets close in and far away from their host star. We’ve seen stars with a single planet and stars with multiple planets. In short, we’ve gotten our money’s worth.

If you’d like to see what we’ve discovered, then why not head over to the Kepler Data explorer?

And if you’d like to use Kepler (and other) data as you search for a planet to call your very own, then head over to:

July 23 – The Great Carrier Reef

Today’s Factismal: The world’s largest artificial reef is an old aircraft carrier sunk off the Florida coast.

Quick! What’s 911 ft long, 150 ft wide, 150 ft tall, and 70 ft under water? It is the USS Oriskany, also known as the Great Carrier Reef and the USS Orisanky. Once an aircraft carrier and the pride of the US Navy, she is now the world’s largest artificial reef and an on-going experiment in how reefs form.

A view through the superstructure of the Great Carrier Reef (Image courtesy MBT Divers)

A view through the superstructure of the Great Carrier Reef
(Image courtesy MBT Divers)

Sinking things to make a reef isn’t a new idea. The Persians did it 3,000 years ago in order to keep pirates out of their port. The Japanese did it 400 years ago in order to grow kelp for sushi. And the Americans did it two centuries ago in order to get more fish. What is new is using massive structures such as aircraft carriers, automobiles, and even bridges, as the base of the reef.

reefOnce sunken, the structure does three things. First, it deflects the bottom currents, sending them and their nutrient-rich water up to the sunny surface where they feed plankton. That then leads to a population explosion of the tiny little krill and other critters who then provide a banquet for small fish which are eaten by bigger fish.

Second, the structure provides hidey holes for the fish. Groupers, eels, and barracuda lurk in the shadows, hoping for a tasty morsel to swim by, while sardines and minnows span in the crevices, seeking safe places to hide their eggs. All told, reefs provide a habitat for about 25% of the world’s species of fish.

The third thing that artificial reefs do is provide a framework for coral, sponges, and other reef-building animals to live on. By giving the baby coral polyps many different places to rest at different depths in the water, the artificial reefs are able to bootstrap the reef building process. Instead of taking centuries for the basal reef builders to provide a substrate that is then taken over by the secondary reef critters, an artificial reef can have it all happening simultaneously.

If you’d like to learn more about coral reefs and how they form oases in the oceans, then head on over to the Coral Reef Monitoring Program!

July 22 – Hole In One

Today’s Factismal: An accidental gunshot to Alexis St. Martin’s stomach led to the discovery of how we digest our food.

How would you like to get paid to eat food? Though it might sound like a dream job at first, you probably wouldn’t enjoy the interview: in order to get the job, Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach! As a young fur trapper, Alexis traveled all over Canada looking for beaver (which was much in demand at the time). While he was visiting the Mackinac Island trading post on June 5, 1822, the musket of one of the other trappers accidentally went off and hit poor Alexis in the stomach.

The US Army surgeon by the name of William Beaumont at the nearby fort took care of Alexis and kept him alive until the wound healed. But, instead of healing over, the edges of his stomach healed to the edges of his skin creating a hole into his innards. Beaumont was no dummy; he realized that this provided a unique opportunity to find out what happened to food in the stomach and to increase our understanding of how digestion works. At the time about all that was known about digestion was that food went in one end and used food came out the other.

For the next eleven years, Beaumont kept Alexis as a servant. Though Alexis chopped wood, carried water, and did the other things expected of a servant, his main job was to lie still as the doctor dangled food on a string in his stomach. By observing the changes in the food and recording Alexis’ changes while the food was being digested, Beaumont was able to tease out the digestive processes that happened in the stomach. Beaumont published the results in 1838 in a tome called Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion; it is still used by medical students today.

If you’d like to help advance medicine but don’t like the idea of getting shot in the stomach, there is an easier way to make a significant contribution. The folks over at Cell Slider need sharp-eyed citizen scientists (Hey! that’s you!) to look over the results of experiments to cure cancer. All you have to do is examine images and determine if the cells are healthy or not (it is easier than it sounds). If you’d like to do your part, then head on over to

July 21 – Go Away!

Today’s factismal: It once rained for 45 days straight in Texas.

One of life’s little ironies is that sometimes you get more than you asked for. That was the situation in Texas in 2007. For three years, the state had been in a steadily worsening drought. Lakes and reservoirs were empty. Water rationing was in effect across the state. Wildfires had turned two million acres of land into the world’s largest impromptu barbeque. By August of 2006, more than 90% of Texas had slipped into drought; for three-quarters of the state, the drought was exceptional or severe. All told, the dry weather caused more than $4 billion in damages. Texans were desperate and praying for rain.

And in late March 2007, Texans thought that their prayers had been answered. Texas and Oklahoma were nestled between two parallel high pressure belts in the atmosphere that kept a low pressure zone centered on them.  A continual stream of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico made its way up to the low pressure zone and fed rain clouds. And so the rains came in and stayed. Every day, for 45 days, it rained. Some days only saw a light drizzle. But others had rainfalls of an inch or more. Lakes and reservoirs refilled. The ground was soaked and saturated with water. Flood damage took the place of drought. And still the rain fell.

A radar image of the storm that ended the 2007 Texas floods (Image courtesy USWS)

A radar image of the storm that ended the 2007 Texas floods
(Image courtesy USWS)

The rainfall continued for 45 days and nights. And when it finally stopped, it did so with a bang. On June 27, 2007, a massive rainstorm hit central Texas. Over just six hours, more than 18 inches of rain fell at Marble Falls – nearly as much as had fallen in the month previous! That sudden “rain bomb” caused flash floods that took the lives of thirteen people and did millions of dollars in damage. Streams and rivers had record flow levels. Flash flooding was everywhere. By the time it was over, Texas had suffered it’s ninth worst flood.

An view from above teh floodwaters (Image courtesy Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

An view from above teh floodwaters
(Image courtesy Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

But the most amazing thing about the flood was that it was predicted and people were warned. Thanks to data collected by the National Weather Service and by hundreds of citizen scientists in Texas, forecasters had known that a major storm was coming since the day before and had warned the public about the danger. Thanks to that warning, what could have been a major disaster was just a huge one. If you’d like to help the National Weather Service prevent the next big disaster, why not join CoCoRAHS? This group hosts automatic rain gauges in their backyards and reports the data to the NWS, where it gets added into models predicting unusual rain events like the Marble Falls rain bomb. To take part, flow on over to:

July 20 – Call Of The Wildebeest

Today’s Factismal: Every year, over 1,200,000 wildebeest move through the Serengeti during the Great Migration.

One of the world’s most amazing places stretches from northeast Tanzania to southeast Kenya. Known as the Serengeti (Masai for “Endless Plains”), this hilly region is home to 500 different species of birds, 70 different species of large mammals (including the famed “big five“), and countless different species of plants. But what is perhaps most amazing about the Serengeti is the annual wildebeest migration.

Wildebeest on the plains (My camera)

Wildebeest on the plains
(My camera)

Over the course of the year, the more than 1.2 million wildebeest that call the Serengeti home move from the short grass plains where the females all give birth within a three week period to the river region where they shelter from the summer drought and back again. As they move from place to place, their hooves sound like thunder and their coats darken the landscape. It is the world’s largest mass migration of mammals.

Walk a little, graze a litte (My camera)

Walk a little, graze a litte
(My camera)

If you’d like to see the migration happen, then you have two choices. Either you can fly to Africa to watch it in person, or you can join the Wildebeest Watch team and look at the wildebeest and other animals as they pass by trap cameras. Classify what you see and you’ll be taking part in another great migration – that of data from the files to the minds of great scientists.